Friday, January 28, 2011

Poverty and Human Rights

I have had a hard time coming to a decision in the past on whether or not I personally view poverty as a human rights violation, yet after reading over the UDA, especially articles 22- 27, I have finally come to my conclusion. My main argument comes from article 25 which states that every person should have "the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family." This I think is clearly not true in the case of most people whom I would consider impoverished.

I must admit that I am not an expert on the different divisions that exist between the “lower class” and the “impoverished,” yet I will offer my understanding of the latter by positing that those living without homes or in projects are indeed “impoverished,” and further, they are experiencing a human rights violation. My most recent encounter with this world of poverty comes from an extremely well-written book entitled Gangleader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh, who at the time was a rogue sociologist who immersed himself into the Robert Taylor project in Chicago. In his book, Vankatesh explores the inner world of the poverty stricken Chicagoans, and how they relate to the Gangs that run/ruin/enrich their lives.

The book displayed to me the apparent truth that this human rights violation of poverty, leads to even more human rights violations, such as those acts of extreme violence taken by gangs. This in turn causes an unequal protection policy to be enforced by the government as is displayed by the lack of police activity in exceedingly dangerous areas. The gangs themselves become the justice system and the people living within their regions are subject to their rule.

So aside from the various health issues offered by projects and ghettos and the like, I would argue that this less often considered human rights issue, when violated can act as a catalyst toward more serious human rights offences. That being said, I wonder if many of the more serious offences could be remedied by providing adequate attention to the less immediate violations such as poverty. What do you think?

Personally, I would argue for the building and maintaining of living centers that have more of a chance of succeeding, and possibly and integration plan. By integration, I’m referring to an idea of trying to rebuild slum areas into places where the more privileged would benefit as well from moving into, while still setting up these new living conditions for the impoverished allowing for the two stark worlds of impoverished and the more privileged to coincide. This may be the idealist in me, but I believe that privileged people being forced to face poverty on a regular basis and close to home would tend to connect more with those experiencing it and possibly begin to make moves toward helping. Not only that but they would have the personal want to keep their neighborhood on the up-and-up and thus would have incentive to keep the area nicer.


  1. Interesting post, Colin! What excatly did you mean to say when you referred to poverty as a " less immediate violation"? I agree that by providing a remedy for poverty, other human rights offences might be solved as well. You give an interesting remedy to the problem of poverty. Ideally, by "integrating" poverty around the privileged class the problem of poverty should change; however, while I lived in India slums were built on the same block as upperclass apartments and the privileged ones were not trying to help improve the slums that they saw everyday. I really like that idea of "integration" though so maybe it is a cultural barrier that such a community does not improve the impoverished conditions in India but it might in other countries.

  2. The idea of a human rights violation implies a violator, does it not? In which case, if an individual fails to enjoy a particular minimum standard of living, who has deprived him of it? The state? Rich people? Society as a whole? Unlike violations to individual rights such as life or liberty, there is no way to trace poverty to any single cause. Rather it derives from a complex stew of social, economic, and individual factors, and I am skeptical as to whether referring to freedom from want (pace FDR) as a human right is of much help in alleviating poverty.

    Suppose one finds an isolated tribe in the Amazon eating animal skins and living in grass huts. By conventional measures, such people would be very poor. Yet I doubt anyone that anyone would argue that this condition, in of itself, constitutes a violation of their rights. And again, if it did, who would be responsible?

  3. Colin, I agree with Manali, this is a really fascinating post. I think that your perspective is a very interesting perspective because it is not one that is often considered. In other words, it is easy to see how poverty is a human rights violation but it is much more difficult to see beyond poverty but see the results of the violation. I never considered that there would be a chain in which violations cause violence and potentially even more violations of rights. But I have one question. You said that “The gangs themselves become the justice system and the people living within their regions are subject to their rule.” To what extent to they have jurisdiction and under what circumstances? I’m just curious to know. The book looks very interesting and maybe I’ll have to pick up a copy. However, I do agree with Patrick when he said there is no way to trace poverty to any single cause. I think this fact plays as a difficult challenge when one is trying to remedy the problem of poverty. Nevertheless, I do like your idealistic view.

  4. Hey there. So integration sounds like a great theory (and I'm not necessarily sold against it), but integration was actually a big part of what turned Memphis into such a crime-ridden city. Well-meaning lawmakers decided to disperse some of the rougher ghettos in Memphis and give those people housing vouchers to move into the city. The idea was to get people out of the Catch 22 of poverty and crime and open up opportunities for them to succeed. The result, however, was that crime that had been focused and confined to specific areas now became checkerboarded all over the city. That is why even in the best neighborhoods in Memphis, you can hop-skip two blocks and find a slum or a cruddy area of town.

    I'm not deriding integration, but if it is to be successful, more attention needs to be paid to the potential negative consequences than has been in the past.

  5. Alright, so I am going to try and answer these in order haha. First off- thanks for giving me some feedback, this idea has been on my mind for some time.

    So first to Manali- I think I misspoke when I said less immediate... I guess I meant less obvious compared to say torture or murder or more life and death types of conditions.

    As to Patrick- My issue is more one of urban poverty I suppose. I think that tribes in the Amazon are not under the same sort of social contract and in many ways would be judged differently on the poverty scale. Their simplistic lifestyle may indeed actually have a higher standard of living than our own and in such a case I would argue that they are not experiencing such a violation. However I would say that you raise a good point saying that there isn't ONE violator however I would also say that the government, as the acting enforcer of our social contract, has the responsibility to attempt to correct this issue.

    Liz- As to your question concerning the gangs I would honestly encourage you to either read the book or ask me in person, as the book itself is a 300+ explanation of this intricate system. It is really quite fascinating to have a window such as Sudhir's account into the gang governed impoverished society.

    Ryley- I completely agree that integration is not sufficient. There needs to be other measures taken. My idea of integration is only one possible help to the process. However I really am interested in your explanation referring to Memphis' own situation being caused by such integration. I'd really like to look more into that and attempt to understand how it failed and why. That I believe would be the first step to fixing this. Understand what caused the failure and fix it, and then fix the failures of the next result and repeat until the best possible outcome is reached. Just an idea.

    Anyway, tell me what you all think! And thanks again for commenting!


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